You will be reading this on Christmas Eve – which may mean a lot of different things to different people. For some it is a last-minute rush to complete all the details before the big day. For others – especially those with little children – the day is a joyous exercise in managing almost magical expectations. For still others, Christmas Eve is the occasion of a long drive to get back ‘home’ for the holiday. Some will be dragging all the hidden treasures from closets and others will have had gifts under the tree for a while now. Some will spend the whole day baking – filling a home with the warm comforting scent of breads and cookies. Additional personal traditions range from night cruises to take in the local light shows to a big mug of hot chocolate and a favorite Christmas movie. A few will volunteer at soup kitchens while others brave the stores for a final bout of shopping. Some few still close out a work-day with an office party – many will join in a special worship and prayer event. Some will sing sacred carols and some will laugh at ditties about the demise of grandma as she fell under the hooves. Some will consume more alcohol than is good for them. Many will sit alone and mourn the absence of lost loved ones. We may well revel in their blessings – a healthy practice to which I am not objecting – though we may also find our miseries accentuated by the ‘joys’ of the holiday season from which we feel – excluded – which I also understand. A number of people will be shot in American cities – some will die – sadly, such tragedies do not take a yule-tide break. Millions will focus on Santa – millions more on the Christ Child. Some of us will see opportunities to make peace and some of us will see opportunities to make money. The ways in which this day will be spent exceed my capacity to describe. But wherever you are and whatever you are doing, whether the day finds you buoyed by exaltation or mired in depression – I hope you can take a moment to know this – Jesus came for you. In whatever aspects of this grand national celebration you may not feel included – or, if you are included in so many as to be a bit overwhelmed – Jesus came for you. Whether you know Him yet or not – if you once knew Him but have lost the connection, if you have heard about Him but never yet taken the time to consider what you have heard seriously – Jesus came for you. Tomorrow is Christmas and Jesus came for you.
Ok – a briefer St. Nick post this time. I said before how I did not know when and how Saint Nicholas came to be associated with the North Pole. Not being content with not knowing – I did a little a checking. I can now report that a cartoonist by name of Thomas Nast submitted a series of drawings to Harpers Weekly from the early 1860’s through the late 1880’s of a Santa’s Christmas Village with a very general address of N.P. (North Pole – as was made clear by several elements of the drawings. Prior to 1909, the North Pole was a much mysterious place than afterwards. After all, no one had ever gotten there or at least lived to tell about it. But it was understood to be, shall we say, sparsely populated and generally very snowy. Both of these facts fit well with the concept of a magical figure associated with a winter holiday. So, there you have it – Thank you Mr. Nast.
That said, I will always remember what set in motion one of the many projects here at IRCC. For several years we manufactured and sold (for only the cost of materials) nativity sets. They were what is reckoned as 1/3 life size and constructed of plywood painted white. (The owner of one of our sets painted his up in detail and color.) The full set featured Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, three wisemen, three camels, a donkey, a sheep, and a cow. We would make whatever combination of figures anyone wanted. All figures were 3D rather than flat and (when assembled) free standing – until it got more than just so windy! For the set we used at the church for many years, bricks for weight or tent stakes for anchors settled that problem. We haven’t made them for a few years now but already this season I have seen them start to pop up.
Anyway – how did that project get started. I had, for a few years, experienced increasing discomfort over the state of Christmas themed lawn sets I saw around the community. Nativity scenes increasingly waned in favor of snowmen, Rudolf, and of course Santa – in his traditional sleigh or on a motorcycle, tractor or even in a flying saucer. Then, one Christmas, penguins became a popular item in Christmas lawn décor. ‘Penguins!’ I thought to myself. ‘Penguins aren’t even from the North Pole!’ It immediately occurred to me that if I was down to defending an orthodoxy as far afield as Santa’s residency in the North Pole, our thinking about Christmas had strayed far indeed! So, we started making the nativity sets. As I said, they are still out there.
Also, as perhaps you have perceived, it was wondering how Santa ever found his way to the North Pole in the first place that sparked the memory about the origin of the Nativity project. So, I suppose, thank you again Mr. Nast. Let’s think about Christ at Christmas.
Every year at IRCC on a Sunday morning in December, I tell the kids the truth about Santa Claus – with an opportunity for any parents who wish, to have their children excused. I will present here a slightly more detailed and adult version of that truth. Santa Claus is real! He just lived a long time ago – nowhere near the North Pole.
He was born Nicholas of Bari in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). His family was wealthy and prominent and he was able to travel and become well educated. His interests lay with the church as opposed to the military or industry. Eventually, he became the Bishop of Myra – also in Turkey.
Almost everything we know about him was written at least a century after his death (born in AD 270, died in AD 343 at 73 years of age) so the authenticity of the information is much argued. In the end, much of it is reckoned to have at least a core of historical validity – the exception being several miracles attributed to Nicholas (He is often referred to as Nicholas the Wonder Worker. Of the miracles I will say nothing here beyond the fact that the rumor of them contributes to the ‘magical’ nature of his reputation as Santa Claus.
When Nicholas’ wealthy parents died, he is said to have distributed their money to the poor by means of a prolonged campaign of secret gift giving – especially to young people – though most of his gift giving doesn’t match our conception of Christmas gift giving. An example: Nicholas was aware of a poor man with three daughters. Having no funds to provide doweries, the man was unable to arrange marriages for his daughters so they would be cared for after he was gone. Before you go all crazy on me – it was a different time and, fair or not, women in those circumstances depended on men to take care of them. It is entirely true that without dowries, the future prospects of poor girls were – limited. It was also true that the estimate of ‘marriageable’ age – was a bit lower than we have. These girls would have been what we would call children. Often such poor girls would be forced into prostitution or a life of hard and miserable labor to procure a very minimal standard of living. Nicholas came by late at night and dropped a bag of gold through a window in the poor man’s house. Using that as a dowry, the man arranged a marriage for his oldest girl. No sooner was that done than a second late night gold drop occurred. And, after the middle daughter was married off – a third. Most of Nicholas’ secret gift giving follows a similar pattern, i.e., his generosity saving people from ill circumstances.
Alright then – a secret gift giver presumed to have the power to work wonders – I don’t much care for the term ‘magic’ but it falls into the modern narrative.
Nicholas is said to have attended the famous Nicean Council (If you don’t know what the Nicean Council was – look it up). For now, suffice it to say it was an event upon which several doctrinal questions were decided for the larger church. One of the issues in contention was classic Trinitarianism (God is three and yet one) verses Arianism – so called for a cleric named Arius. Arius held that Jesus did not exist before his arrival in Bethlehem – that God begot Jesus in ‘time’ – so that, unlike God the Father, God the Son had a beginning. This would make Jesus distinct from God – related to Him but not ‘One With God’ as per trinitarianism. Nicholas argued with Arius and things got so heated that Nicholas is said to have slapped Arius (or punched him in the nose depending on the source).
So, our magical secret gift giver now becomes forever associated with Christmas – the birth of Christ – even if we have forgotten the specifics of the original doctrinal dispute. BTW – Nicholas did get in trouble for this even though the council ultimately sided with him on Trinitarianism. Nicholas was never a stranger to trouble. Under the anti-Christian campaign of the Emperor Diocletian, Nicholas went to prison. When Constantine came to power and made Christianity the state religion, Nicholas (and many others) were released.
After his death Nicholas was made a Saint with all the usual hoopla of church building, relocation of bones, becoming the patron saint of this and that group. He was an immensely popular saint throughout the Middle Ages. In some strange fashion, the most popular story of St. Nicholas at the time involved a terrible man who murdered and pickled children to be sold as ‘pork’ during a famine. I will leave you to seek more on that tale on your own.
After the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century, the popularity of Nicholas died all over Europe with the exception of Holland where the name ‘Nicholas’ was rendered as ‘Klause’. Sinter (Saint) Klause (Nicholas). Well, that explains something.
The Dutch legends of Sinter Klause met American Popular Culture in the 19th Century and – presto – Santa Claus – a magical secret gift giver and lover of young people with a built in on ramp to Christmas! How the North Pole got into the act is beyond me. But the legend remembers something of the truth. And the truth always comes back to Jesus Christ. If the actual Saint Nicholas saw what we sometimes do with Christmas – he just might punch us in the nose.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church